Last time, we started our exploration of monsoon foods in Bengal, focusing primarily on the iconic plate of khichuri and ilish mach. It is time to move ahead and take a look at the rest of our meal.
We’ve talked about the bhaja in the previous instalment, the array of fried goodies that provide texture to a simple meal of bhaat-daal or khichuri. These can simply be slices of veggie fried in oil as is, like the humble aloo bhaja, batons of potato that pair exceedingly well with ruti for dinner, or more elaborate battered and breaded fare. One of my favourite battered bhaja, often called a bora, is a monsoon vegetable, although it is now available all year round.
The humble kumro, or pumpkin cooks down into a soft, sweet mush, and works brilliantly both as a simple bhaja, sans batter, or as a bora, the mushy interior contrasting beautifully with the crisp besan batter. Bhaat, daal and bhaja is the holy trinity of Bengali home cooking. Other common candidates for boras include the winter phulkopi (cauliflower) and summer gourds like chalkumro and uchhche. Oh, and speaking of bhajas and the rains, we cannot forget the telebhaja.
Like Chinese dimsum and Spanish tapas, the telebhaja is an institution all on its own: an array of bite-sized treats that is near and dear to all Bengalis. They can be battered, like the beguni, peyaji and aloor chop, made with eggplant, sliced onion and spiced potato respectively. The batter is made of chickpea, reinforced with spices like chilli, turmeric and nigella seeds (kalojeere). For fans of the chickpea batter, there is the fluffy fuluri, made by vigosously whisking the batter, creating beautiful golden orbs, crisp on the outside and spongy on the inside.
Then there are the breaded bhajas. No fancy panko here, all you need is simple breadcrumbs, often confusingly translated as “biscuit er guro”. The most popular example in this category include the vegetable chop, whose filling is made predominantly with potato and beetroot, with the occasional addition of carrot and peas, and if you’re feeling fancy, some fried peanuts. The fancier bhajas like chops made of fish and meat are usually breaded.
So, how do you enjoy telebhaja? A bowl of muri, a generous drizzle of the best mustard oil, chopped green chillies, and two or three pieces of telebhaja, preferably an assortment. Add to that the sound of the rumble of clouds and the petrochor of the moist earth, and you’re in heaven. assortment of telebhaja should put the North Indian pakoras to shame: the variety of textures and flavours is simply marvellous.
Mustard is a running theme throughout Bengali cuisine, as we’ve seen with both the shorshe ilish and the telebhaja. Another mustard-based dish that celebrates monsoon produce in all its glory is the kochupata chingri bhapa, a dish of prawn and colocasia/taro leaves steamed in a mustard sauce. A lot of veggies are available in this season, and two other shrimp-accented examples include another the shapla chingri, made with water lily stems, and mocha chingri, made with banana blossom.
Of course, vegetables don’t always need the crutch of fish to be delicious, and a vegetarian version of mocha, accented with coconut and chhola, is just as good. Mocha has a crisp texture and a subtle, nutty flavour, a great example of nose to tail cooking in the plant world, where almost every part of the banana tree gets put into some use or the other, from raw plantains in koftas to the banana stem (thor) in dry curries, from the peel, thinly sliced, in a spicy chorchori to the leaves, either as plates for eating or a wrapped for steaming fish in the form of a paturi.
The monsoons are a time when people’s appetites are not at its best, and people often suffer from stomach upsets. Kalojeere bhorta, a flavourful mix of nigella seeds, onion, garlic and mustard oil is often eaten at the start of a meal. The bhorta is a very Bangladeshi concoction, a flavourful mash of potent ingredients shaped into a ball and served it rice at the start of a meal. As for the end of the meal, barsha is a time when people prefer spicy, tart chutneys to jolt the palate, as the stuffiness often kills the appetite. These are made with seasonal fruits like kamranga (star apple), madar (calotropis), and aamra or hog plum.
Ashar and srabon are the two months considered to be borshakaal or rainy season according to the Bengali calendar. The month of Bhadra heralds in the early autumn, or sharat kaal, when the clouds begin to part and get reduced to fleecy wisps to reveal the brilliant blue sky yet again. On the 17ht of September every year, Bengalis worship Bishwakarma, our version of Vulcan. This is unique as most other festivals keep changing their dates on the English calendar based on the tithis. Not this one.
“For children, Bishwakarma means kite-flying, the traditional expression of the conviction that the monsoon has really withdrawn……Victory, when it comes, is greeted with the resounding cry “Bho-katta!” By the afternoon of the sankranti the multi-coloured kites chase the clouds and each other with all the fresh enthusiasm of liberated energy.”
If Bhadra comes, can “Ashwiner Sharodo Praater Alokomonjir” be far behind?